I recently had a conversation with a good friend about the challenges of work/life balance.  Even when you maintain some semblance of a work/life balance, it can still feel as though something is missing, as though something else needs to be added or removed from the equation.  And that’s when I realized that there is no perfect and concrete equation for work/life balance.  It’s all a mental game.

Work/life balance has become such a buzzword that I worry it has lost its meaning, even though the actual concept is incredibly important for psychological health and well being.  I’d first like to break down the key aspects of life that are always fighting for our attention: 1) The part of our life that is productivity oriented  2) The part of our life that is relationship oriented  3) The part of our life that is individually oriented.  The first component is the part our life involving our work or school, or even any aspect of life involved in productivity.  Stay at home moms may not technically “work” by our society’s standards, but they are arguably the most hard working people who are constantly trying to be productive and contribute to the family (scheduling, cooking, cleaning, ensuring all aspects of the family are running smoothly, etc.).  The second part of our life involves our relationships, and this requires as much work and nurturing as the more “productive” parts of our life.  “Relationships” include family, spouse, children, partners, friends and neighbors—any relationship that is meaningful. The third part of our life concerns the parts that are oriented towards our individual health and well being—our exercise, nutrition, self care, creativity, sense of fun and spirituality.

If we’re spending too much time in any one of these three parts, we become out of balance.  And yet no one can achieve “perfect” balance in all three parts of life, all the time.  Something usually has to give at certain times, though we certainly can strive to have fulfillment in all three areas.  What’s problematic is when one aspect of our life is fed too little over a long period of time (eg, we work too much) so that the other two equally important parts begin to starve.  And this is when it becomes harder and harder to manage stress, and when things such as anxiety and depression can creep in.

So what are some of the psychological factors that can lead to our lives being out balance?

1) Fear.  This fear can be due to feeling as though you may “miss out” in one aspect of life if you start paying more attention to another.  For example, if you realize that you’ve been working too much and that you value your relationship with your family more than work, you may realize that something has to give.  This may mean you set firm boundaries with work and you always leave on time, or you’re not available via email outside of work hours or on weekends, or you cut back the number of hours you work.  And yes, this may mean that you could “miss out” on work opportunities that other employees may have.  And this is part of effective balance—knowing that you may have to give up one aspect of the balance to put forth more energy into your personal or relational life, and becoming comfortable with this.  No, you may not make as much money, or climb the corporate ladder as quickly or at all.  But, on the other hand, you may get to have dinner with your family almost every evening, and may have more time to dedicate to exercise or creative pursuits.  Once you become more fulfilled with all three aspects of your life adequately fed, it will be easier to tolerate the discomfort that comes with feeling as though you “gave up” one thing for another.

2) “Grass is always greener” syndrome.  As human beings, we always play the comparison game.  It seems to be hard wired into us.  The comparison game, if done in moderation, can help motivate us to become better people.  But usually, it isn’t helpful.  It paints an overly rosy and unrealistic picture of someone else, which naturally makes our own lives look a little more dull by comparison.  The comparison game is like a “highlight reel” where it only sees the positives of someone else’s life, while discounting the positives in our own.  If trapped in the comparison game, you may always feel as though you must strive to have the life that someone else has—whether it’s someone more successful, or someone who seems to have a thriving family life, or someone who seems to have a rich individual life full of various personal pursuits.

3) The former three psychological factors are directly related to this, which is not ever feeling “good enough.”  Even if you are achieving what appears to be a balanced life, it is meaningless if you feel as though you’ll never be “good enough.”  If you have the “I’m not good enough” belief about yourself, it doesn’t matter what you accomplish.  You’ll always discount the good in your life or minimize your positive achievements.

4) A need for external validation, rather than intrinsic reward.  Usually, people who have a difficult time letting go of work to dedicate time to the family or themselves are very “product oriented,” relying upon others to give them positive feedback or reward about what they did.  If you’re always looking outside of yourself for validation of your self worth, then feeding the more gray areas of your life (personal and relational) are going to be difficult, even though these parts of life are just as important.  Work can give you concrete feedback about you–employee reviews, for example.  However, if you were trying to give up parts of work to be with your children more, your children are obviously not going to give you that concrete feedback and external validation that you’re used to.

5) Avoidance.  A very common reason why life can be out of balance is we keep ourselves overly busy.  Keeping ourselves overly busy can prevent us from taking time to think about ourselves or feel our feelings.  The allure of being busy can be very a seductive appeal if we’re trying to avoid something.

So how do we manage these psychological factors that can lead to being “out of balance?”

1) Learning to let go and sit with the grey.

2) Take an inventory at the end of the day of your feelings.  When did you feel most satisfied?  When did you feel the least satisfied? This can help serve as a compass in your life.  It can help you realize when you are doing something truly meaningful to you, versus something that depletes you.  Are the things that deplete you really necessary?  If not, how can they be removed from your life?  This will also help with the comparison game.  Even though you may not be as successful as your millionaire brother in law, for example, how much satisfaction do you get from your day to day life?  Satisfaction indicates a rich and balanced life, and these are things that neither money nor success can buy.

3) Have realistic expectations.  If you want to make partner in your law firm, then this will mean you will be working too much to have dinner with your family every night.  So something has to give.  Conversely, if you want to spend more time at home with your family, you may have to give up your dream to become partner.  No one can have it all.

4) Learn when to postpone vs. when to let go.  If you’re trying to work and raise small children, you may not be able to take that three month trip to Nepal that you always dreamed of.  However, this may be a goal that can be postponed to later in life.  This is different from other aspirations in life that need to be let go of more permanently.

5) Take time at the end of each day to reflect on gratitude.  What do you have in your life that makes you feel grateful?

6) Flip the coin with the “grass is greener” syndrome.  On one hand, you may be thinking about all of the things that that more successful co-worker has.  But what do you have that he/she doesn’t? How might the grass be greener if they were looking into your life from their life?